Andy Field. Cairo Diaries. Part 2: On art and public space

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The two men were dancing, one in a black shirt and one in red. They were dancing a dance of aggressive and compelling proximity, clambering over and onto each other, pushing and pulling, bodies caught in an abstracted vocabulary of violence that in its abstraction becomes its opposite – something sensually intimate, something made of care and shared effort in the same way love should be. Around them a crowd had gathered in a thick, broad semi-circle – adults, children, some who know what is going on and others who are curious to know more, some indifferent perhaps, some stay for a few minutes and then move on.

In this crowd our bodies are caught in another kind of intimate proximity to one another, shoulder to shoulder, heads bobbing the space between other heads. Charged bodies full of possibility, containing in them the potential for both the violence and the sensuality playing itself out in front of us.

I am always a little excited and a little frightened of a crowd. Teenagers gathering around a fight breaking out. A rush to towards the music, or a rush towards the exit. A crowd moving slowly down a street together. Running bodies in their running uniforms pressed in around me, breathing in unison as we move steadily through the afternoon sunlight.

‘Public space is very linked to Egyptian public life.’ D-CAF festival director Ahmed El Attar had told us earlier in his introduction to this Urban Vision, the festival’s programme of public space performances. Egyptians like to live outside, drinking coffee, eating food. Weddings and funerals become moments of public theatre that occupy whole streets. But much as it has in Britain and I imagine elsewhere in Europe, time has shrunk the horizon of possibilities for how and where people can make use of the public space around them.

For Ahmed, performance in the public realm is a way of holding open other possibilities for the meaning and purpose ascribed to public space. It is a way of connecting people with the space around them and the numerous ways in which they can inhabit it. It is reminder of what it feels like to be gathered here together, unlikely strangers, to watch two men dancing together, or a parade of folk tale monsters carried on the backs of puppeteers. 

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I am excited by this idea in the way that I have always been excited by it – that live performance is a manufacturer of possibilities for the public spaces we otherwise might overlook or underuse.

But I’m also aware from my own failures that in the UK that often this rhetoric of freedom and possibility can fail to extend an opportunity to participate to those who are perhaps most in need of it. In 2009 on London’s South Bank, I was involved in creating a street game for a summer festival. Promoted by the South Bank Centre the piece encouraged players to dress in one of three colours and meet outside the Royal Festival Hall, freezing for two minutes and then moving in a series of stuttering improvised patterns towards a nearby park where we had prepared as a finale a giant game of grandmother’s footsteps led by a performer in a giant papier-mâché grandmother’s head.

As the people playing the game started to move in fits and starts across grass dozens of other people, many local teenagers hanging out and drinking in the sunshine, noticed them doing so and tried to join in. These new people did not know the rules, they had not received the pre-event briefing emailed to players the previous day, they were not visitors to the South Bank Centre. In delighted exhilaration they rushed at Grandma. We didn’t know what to do. We hadn’t anticipated this; we hadn’t invited them to play.

Responding instinctively to the danger posed to the performer braced inside the oversized costume we formed a cordon, a barrier, a strong line of defence; arms linked, we pressed into the crowd, forcing them backwards away from their immediate target. Behind me I could hear another supervisor using a loudhailer to encourage these new players to disperse. This was not the kind of play we had anticipated, and not the role we thought we would find ourselves playing.

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If there are times when art connects you with public space, and times it can unwittingly exclude you, perhaps there are also times when a place is so extraordinary that art can initially at least appear incapable of offering anything to it at all.

It is earlier in the day, before the dancers, and we are driving in minibuses through Manshiyat Naser, an area of the city inhabited by a community of thousands of the Cairo’s garbage collectors. The buses moves slowly through narrow streets, struggling past other vehicles overloaded with tightly bound white sacks of garbage moving in the opposite direction. The buildings are half built and high, blocking out the sun which nonetheless breaks through at numerous points. At ground level the walls are covered in fading political posters, Coptic Christian iconography, Paco Robane posters and images of Coca Cola bottles softly glistening through the dust. Higher up hang strange religious objects, washing lines, dolls, clothes, blankets and eventually above all of them the infinite blue sky. As we rumble slowly past mountains of sorted and unsorted detritus, all the impossible excesses of the world we have manufactured, I’m reminded of Tony Smith’s description of his late night joyride along the half-finished New Jersey Turnpike through what he described as an ‘artificial landscape without cultural precedent’:

The experience on the road was something mapped out but not socially recognized. I thought to myself, it ought to be clear that's the end of art. Most paintings look pretty pictorial after that. There is no way you can frame it, you just have to experience it. 

And yet, the reason we had come to this place was to see a work of art - a mural covering nearly 50 buildings that only really becomes visible from the edge of this neighbourhood. We gather at the windows of a coffee shop to take photos. The mural itself has no frame. It bleeds out into the neighbourhood. And it is beautiful. It is undeniably beautiful. Beautiful perhaps because it’s impossible scale and incredible spectacle, but also because it feels genuinely like it belongs to this place and this place alone. Our guide is clear that the mural emerged out of and was made for this community - they gave the permission for it to be made and no one else, and it is they who sit in this coffee shop, or on nearby rooftops, to see this thing.

As such the mural is a reminder that public space is not empty space or a blank canvas, it is a space filled with politics, people, history, antagonism, memory and garbage of all kinds. And perhaps art’s responsibility is consequently not only to animate the space itself but to animate the communities that inhabit that space. When I got back to my hotel room I looked up the article about the mural in the New York Times. In it the residents describe how the artists engaged with the community as they painted day after day:

“they used to play with the kids, and talk to the people,” said Boutros Ghali, a 24-year-old shopkeeper who placed a photograph of himself with one of the visitors on the wall of his store. “People loved them, and got used to them. And when they left, people were upset.”